Vol. 44 No. 11 · 9 June 2022

My Castaway This Week

Miranda Carter on the world’s longest-running interview show

3734 words

The idea​ for Desert Island Discs came to Roy Plomley one night in November 1941 in the aftermath of the Blitz. Plomley was 27, an unsuccessful actor turned slightly more successful radio broadcaster. The fire in his digs had gone out, and he’d just put on his pyjamas when inspiration struck. He immediately typed out his idea and posted it the next morning to Leslie Perowne, a producer in the BBC Gramophone department: ‘DESERT ISLAND DISCS: If you were wrecked on a desert island, which ten gramophone records would you like to have with you? Providing of course that you have a gramophone and needles as well!’

It was brilliantly timed. What could be more appealing in the middle of wartime, when everything was on the ration and the German army was on the outskirts of Moscow, than escape to a sunny, quiet desert island, into music and memory? BBC radio was desperate for good light entertainment. At the start of the war it had become the UK’s sole broadcaster – commercial radio and BBC TV had been closed down – and it had a large, captive, highly critical audience complaining about the lack of cheerful programming.

Plomley had been unsuccessfully touting programme ideas for a while, most recently I Know What I Hate, in which guests chose records they loathed, and This Too Too Solid Flesh, about ‘corpulence’. Perowne admitted he secretly loved the first idea; the second, he tutted, was not ‘up to the Plomley standard. Indeed, we picture all the fat listeners on this island writing rude letters to complain of such a broadcast.’ Plomley wasn’t necessarily wrong, just ahead of his time, as Room 101 (1994-2018) and two decades of fat shows (The Biggest Loser, Shut-Ins: Britain’s Fattest People, Obese: A Year to Save My Life etc) have demonstrated. Mind you, most of them are terrible.

Perowne immediately commissioned six episodes of Desert Island Discs, reduced the number of records to eight and hired Plomley as presenter at fifteen guineas a programme – about £750 in today’s money. Nobody would have been more surprised than Plomley or his boss by the fact that the programme celebrated its eightieth birthday this January. It’s the world’s longest-running interview show, though only the eleventh oldest radio programme: that record is held by the Shipping Forecast, at 98, closely followed by The Grand Ole Opry, broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee since 1925. The format of Desert Island Discs is deeply and reassuringly familiar to its audience, each episode, according to its recent presenter Kirsty Young, ‘a well-tethered hammock’ cradling itself ‘around each highly individual guest’.

For decades the famous and worthy, or would-be worthy, have queued up to appear on it. On his death in 1965, Herbert Morrison, Clement Attlee’s heir presumptive for 25 years, was found to have a list of his eight favourite songs in his wallet in case he should ever be invited on – he never was. In his 1982 play, The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard described the eternal dilemma of choosing records that make you look classy and cultured versus the ones you actually like. (He was rewarded by being invited onto the show three years later.) In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi (Desert Island Discs 2013), then the world’s favourite democracy activist, mentioned it in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. The British Academy published a book ‘on the programme’s significance’ in 2017, Defining the Discographic Self. It even has its own urban myth, in which Brigitte Bardot tells Roy Plomley that she wants ‘a peenis’ for her luxury. Choking on his microphone he eventually realises she means ‘’appiness’. Bardot never appeared on Desert Island Discs – but Marlene Dietrich did, shaving seven years off her age and answering Plomley’s ever-courteous, pedestrian questions with a stream of weary, slightly scornful ‘no’s.

The unexpected treasure accrued by the show’s longevity is that you can hear her do this. Since 2011, when Plomley’s family finally reached an agreement with the BBC over copyright, some 2360 episodes have come online, available as podcasts. (One thousand or so are unavailable or missing: there are no recordings from before 1951 and coverage is fragmentary up to the late 1970s.) This audio archive is unique. Before your ears thousands of famous and no longer famous people talk about themselves. Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.

There are also thousands of memorable moments, some distinguished by hindsight (Robert Maxwell declaring: ‘I will have left the world a slightly better place by having lived in it’), some by the way radio forefronts every tic, hesitation and obfuscation, and some by personal revelation. In 2020, as Covid added a piquancy to the programme’s central conceit of abandonment on a desert island, there were numerous lists of Desert Island Discs’ ten best episodes. Many included Yoko Ono on being hated and witnessing John Lennon’s murder, the actor Stephen Graham on his suicide attempt, Maya Angelou on childhood trauma, Simon Cowell boasting, Alfred Wainwright on his last walk in the Lakes as his eyes failed (‘the mountains wept for me that day’) and Tom Hanks moved to tears discussing his lonely childhood. Plomley would have been horrified by such emotional outpourings. He was congenitally reluctant to pry and he conceived of Desert Island Discs as a music show.

The first thirty-minute episode was broadcast live at 8 p.m. on Thursday, 29 January 1942, to the strains of Eric Coates’s ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’, apparently inspired by the view from Selsey towards Bognor Regis. It featured on the Forces Programme, which had been set up to provide a richer diet of drama, music and variety than the staid and news-oriented Home Service. The first guest was Vic Oliver, a popular Austrian musical comedian. Plomley scripted the episode and the transcript survives. Talk was squeezed in round the edges of the records: a series of brief, knockabout, allegedly comic exchanges with Plomley, the actor manqué, as the straight man – a role he clearly enjoyed:

Plomley (reads): ‘Vic Oliver – comedian, lightning club manipulator, violinist and comedy trick cyclist. Light work done with a horse and van.’ Is this a photograph of you?

Oliver: Don’t you think it’s like me?

Plomley: It looks quite a lot younger.

Oliver: I must admit it was taken a few years ago.

Plomley: I had no idea photography was invented as long ago as that.

There was no personal revelation – no reference, for example, to Oliver’s recent scandalous split from his wife, Sarah Churchill, the prime minister’s daughter. (Winston Churchill had always been appalled by the marriage and described Oliver as ‘common as dirt’.) That’s not to say there was no subtext. Oliver was Jewish and said to be on a Nazi blacklist. His final choice of record, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, made the point that Wagner and German culture belonged just as much to an Austrian Jew and adoptive Brit as to the Nazis.

After four episodes, the BBC’s listener research department reported that 146 military units had given the programme a solid B-plus. The idea and the castaways were liked, but the musical choices were criticised for being too ‘highbrow’ – no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss. It was a fair point. The most common music choices would remain insistently highbrow until the 2010s. Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was ‘Je ne regrette rien’ sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right – castaways wanted to look cultured – but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness. (I was pleased to discover that, 23 years apart, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono both chose John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’ as their favourite record.)

Despite its slightly lacklustre start, Desert Island Discs picked up a following and ran for 67 episodes before being mothballed in 1946 after BBC radio was restructured and the Forces Programme became the Light Programme. Behind the scenes, the Gramophone Department kept agitating for its revival, and five years later, in January 1951, it reappeared on the Home Service. Plomley restrung his hammock, his fee having risen to 22 guineas per episode. This was when guests began to be offered a choice of book and luxury to take to their desert island along with the records, plus Shakespeare and the Bible; the first luxury, chosen by the actress Sally Ann Howes, was garlic, distressingly rare in postwar Britain.

Plomley continued to script the show for live broadcast until the mid-1950s, proud of his ability – after taking them for lunch at his club (the Garrick for men, the Lansdowne for women) – to write up a pretty good ‘pastiche of [his guests’] conversational style’. History may beg to differ. The early recordings are painfully stagey. The first, from 1951, features Margaret Lockwood (best known for playing feisty period heroines opposite James Mason, who himself did Desert Island Discs in 1961 and 1981) sounding as if she’s narrating a public information film: the Eton boating song ‘conjures up for me a very pleasant English scene’.

When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. ‘It was a great improvement,’ Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put ‘properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character’. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. He didn’t play castaways their records, editing them in later, as if afraid that they might provoke an overly emotional reaction. In particular, he fled from following up on an opening. When Margaret Thatcher appeared in 1978 – she invited herself on, the only castaway successfully to do so – the result was resolutely pedestrian: they barely mentioned politics at all. But she did give him a few opportunities:

Thatcher: When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.

Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?

And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:

Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.

Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four.

David Hendy, author of a history of Radio 4, Life on Air, as well as an essay on Desert Island Discs in Defining the Discographic Self, observes that the programme’s audience wasn’t frustrated by its reticence and safeness or, apparently, by its policy of avoiding politicians and ‘matters of current controversy’. Many of the 1960s recordings are full of longueurs, but the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. Hendy reports that in 2001, in research by Mass Observation, respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. What you start to hear in the 1960s recordings, though, is radio’s ability to lay bare what’s not said. Field Marshal Montgomery sounds lonely, wistful and odd; the twenty-year-old Cliff Richard sounds painfully young, schoolboyish and eager to please. By the 1970s, however, Plomley’s questioning had begun to seem creaky. To the growing frustration of a cohort of radio execs, he rebuffed all attempts to tweak the programme, and went on, Hendy writes, ‘asking the same questions in the same order’. Higher-ups, too, felt it was ‘necessary’ to preserve Desert Island Discs’ approach in order to reassure the more conservative parts of the audience that not everything was changing.

But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways – younger, more candid – began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians. Booze started to turn up more regularly as the luxury. Norman Mailer asked for a stick of the best marijuana. Plomley: ‘This is illegal talk, Mr Mailer!’ Desert Island Discs’ famous roster became its most distinguishing quality – an invitation was an accolade and brought with it an unspoken obligation to talk personally. Plomley became part of the furniture. There’s William Trevor ruminating unshowily on the job of writing; the just pre-Pennies from Heaven Dennis Potter remembering his Forest of Dean childhood; and Charlotte Rampling, very solemn, on the death of her sister and making The Night Porter – Plomley managing to avoid any mention of what it was actually about. (In case you’ve forgotten, the S&M relationship between a concentration camp survivor and her ex-SS officer lover.) Six minutes survive of a bracingly blunt Oliver Reed, though there’s nothing, sadly, of his luxury, an inflatable doll. This was also requested by Gary Glitter (currently serving sixteen years as a convicted paedophile); Ronnie Scott (who asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead); and the actor and explorer Duncan Carse, who asked for a ‘rubber woman’. Strangely, the BBC website says he asked for a ‘pin-up picture’. Glitter’s episode and that of the late, disgraced Jimmy Savile, are no longer available. Rolf Harris’s two episodes are.

As the​ rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air. Monica Sims, head of Radio 4 in the 1980s, observed that the programme gave castaways ‘the opportunity to reveal themselves as the nice people most of them are’. But it could still be mesmerisingly dull. Plomley’s 1981 interview with Princess Margaret was widely regarded as a disaster:

PLOMLEY: Did you find it difficult to choose your eight records?’

MARGARET: Yes, I found it very difficult. Indeed.

Plomley: What was the occasion of the first ceremonial you saw? … it must have been very long.

Margaret: Yes. Very.

Plomley died in harness in 1985 after 1786 episodes. He was succeeded by Michael Parkinson, twenty years younger and an experienced TV chat show host, who found the experience bruising and left after two years. In his autobiography, Parkinson says that Plomley’s widow, Diana (who’d wanted Plomley’s old friend John Mortimer to get the job), sniped to the tabloids that she didn’t like his voice and thought he wasn’t ‘civilised enough’. The BBC review board also accused him of filling the programme with Yorkshiremen, which was demonstrably untrue. But there was a feeling among both the radio audience and the BBC execs that Parkinson wasn’t quite right: too showbiz, too intrusive. When you listen now this seems unfair. Parkinson was energetic and audibly more engaged, asked more probing questions and got more personal answers. It’s hard to imagine Plomley listening to Maya Angelou as she calmly described how she became mute as a child after the man who had raped her was murdered. Parkinson insisted castaways be played their records during the show, a practice continued by his replacement, Sue Lawley, who saw music as a tool for stirring the subject’s emotions, carefully scrutinising each guest to see how they were affected.

By shifting the tenor of the show and taking the flak for it, Parkinson did Lawley a favour. Returning to the Plomleian era was unthinkable, and Lawley, a TV journalist who arrived in 1988, had no intention of doing so. She was intensely ambitious for Desert Island Discs, though she never admitted it in public. ‘It is not a programme of penetrating interviews or sensational revelations,’ she wrote in Desert Island Discussions (1990). This was a trick she would consistently pull, claiming that the programme was a comfy old shoe, when actually she had turned it into a sharpened stiletto. During her tenure, Desert Island Discs became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio – a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. Lawley was dogged in pursuit of what made her castaways tick, and could be startlingly direct (Diana Plomley called her ‘impertinent and rude’). It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.

She also reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy, inviting on right-wing figures like Enoch Powell and Lord Hailsham and co-opting left-wing outliers like Tony Benn, Eric Hobsbawm, Arthur Scargill, John Pilger and Stuart Hall. She set about coaxing – and sometimes wrestling – as much emotion and revelation from her castaways as she could, using the unthreatening stimulus of music, and the intimacy created by two people in a dingy little radio studio. She tried to ensure spontaneity by not revealing the questions and not meeting the interviewee in advance, though she planned her questions and their order meticulously.

Lawley asked Gordon Brown whether he was gay, ‘or whether there’s some flaw in your personality that you haven’t made a relationship’. Brown could have taken umbrage, but instead said: ‘I’m not married because I’m not married.’ (A sign of the changing times: it’s not a question Parkinson would have asked the unmarried fashion designer Bruce Oldfield ten years before.) Her persistence usually paid off. When Powell claimed she’d misrepresented him, she quoted the relevant section of his ‘rivers of blood’ speech back at him. When Hobsbawm suggested that the sacrifice of millions of lives to establish a communist utopia was comparable to the sacrifices made to beat Hitler, she asked whether there wasn’t a difference ‘between killing someone in war and killing your own’. ‘We didn’t know that,’ Hobsbawm said. ‘Dead is dead.’

Lawley’s interview with Diana Mosley, née Mitford, in 1989, was the most controversial episode in the programme’s history. Mosley insisted that her husband Oswald hadn’t been antisemitic, extolled Hitler’s ‘mesmeric’ blue eyes and ‘fascinating’ personality, and said of the Holocaust that she couldn’t believe ‘that six million people’ died: ‘I think it’s just not conceivable – it’s too many’ (though she did admit ‘it was a dreadfully wicked thing’). In the recording you can hear Lawley pause as she lets the listeners absorb this. Later she says: ‘To listen to you speak, Lady Mosley, it’s almost … as if you’re rewriting history.’

‘No, no, that’s just how it was. I can remember it so well.’

There was a huge furore. The controller of Radio 4, Michael Green, was robust in defence. ‘In the last few years the brief of the programme has changed,’ he said. ‘The young need to recognise the kind of thinking that endorsed Nazi Germany.’ The same programme wouldn’t go out now.

For me, Lawley’s successor, Kirsty Young (who arrived in 2006 and left, after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, in 2018), is the best presenter the programme has had. If Lawley was the journalist, Young was the therapist. She described her task as being to ‘strike up an intimacy with the guest that allows them to trust me and in turn properly reveal themselves’. Her voice was key: deep, empathetic, amused, slightly detached and (to many) classlessly Scottish. She has written that the best piece of professional advice she ever got was ‘Listen, listen, to what people say.’ She had a genius for asking the right follow-up question.

I particularly admire her interview from 2013 with the famously abrasive journalist Julie Burchill, who announces from the off her disgust for soft emotions and says she revels in conflict. ‘Vitriol comes naturally to me. I get a mild parasexual thrill when I start a new feud.’ Young says she doesn’t believe her, implying she’s in flight from painful feelings, and presses her on walking out on two marriages and two sons. Burchill insists she’s not. Young says: ‘But you do care about it?’ Burchill talks at length about ‘regret’, and how she has no time for it. Then Young interrupts: ‘But you see here’s the thing, Julie, I didn’t use the word “regret”, I used the word “care”.’ Burchill shrieks as if caught out. It’s a remarkable moment. But she insists she won’t let herself ‘come to grief on the rocks of her own emotions’ – she’s seen it happen. Then right at the end she admits that she won’t go back to Bristol, where she grew up, because she can’t bear to ‘hear people who talk like my parents … I hope I’m not so weak and silly that one day I won’t go back.’

‘It’s just emotion,’ Young says.

It is the misfortune of Young’s replacement, Lauren Laverne, DJ and TV presenter, to have followed the person who did the job best. Laverne is warm and cheerful. An acquaintance she interviewed for Desert Island Discs told me it was the nicest interview he’d ever done. Too nice, perhaps. A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island. People have to be careful. But it’s a safe bet that the famous will continue to succumb to ‘the opportunity to reveal themselves as the nice people most of them are’.

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